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Million Dollar Quartet

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Greg Gale, Edward Murphy, Alicia Toner, Evan Stewart, and Matthew Lawrence in a scene from Million Dollar Quartet (photo: Berni Wood, The Charlottetown Festival).  Her musical's lyrics urge Anne of Green Gables to "never change," and the show's Charlottetown Festival home often seems somewhat simpatico with that advice. Anne's antics return every year, and most Festival seasons also feature at least one jukebox musical. That includes this year's main stage companion to Anne, Million Dollar Quartet

Written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, MDQ is loosely based on a real-life event: a December 4, 1956 Carl Perkins recording session during which Sun Records musicians Perkins (played here by Ed Murphy), Jerry Lee Lewis (Jefferson McDonald) and Johnny Cash (Greg Gale) played an informal, impromptu jam session with visiting Sun alumnus Elvis Presley (Matthew Lawrence). 

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Stephen Guy-McGrath) hosted this "million dollar quartet," as newspaper reporter Bob Johnson dubbed them after Phillips called him in to document the occasion. Sun's recordings of the session were eventually released on several albums in later decades. The Mutrux/Escott musical adaptation debuted in 2006, hitting Broadway in 2010 and coming to Charlottetown this summer. 

Inevitably, there's a degree of speculation, imagination and fabrication at play in the musical's fictionalized version of the event, though often rooted in knowledge of the real-life personalities — using the famously volatile Lewis as a conflict-generator among the other characters makes sense, for instance, in terms of creating much of the show's drama. 

The 1956 session's participants included drummer W. S. "Fluke" Holland as well as Perkins' brothers Jay on guitar and Clayton on upright bass, but the musical's sidemen consist of Fluke (Trevor Grant) and a single composite Perkins brother, a bass-playing Jay (Evan Stewart). Similarly, Presley's dancer girlfriend Marilyn Evans attended the 1956 session strictly as a spectator, but she is replaced in the musical by a fictional singer girlfriend, Dyanne (Alicia Toner), who jams with the boys and even gets some numbers of her own. 

The Mutrux/Escott story also takes some chronological liberties: the musical gins up its thin plot by having Cash and Carl Perkins preparing to quit Sun Records like Presley before them, though their respective departures from Sun happened much later than this in real life. Along with a parallel subplot about Phillips considering selling Sun, this adds a bit of extra intrigue beyond the musicians' personality clashes. 

Of course, all the drama is secondary to the music, and there's tons of it. Only several of the musical's 20-plus songs were actually played in the 1956 session, but it's hard to care when the show boasts so many classic tunes performed so skillfully by director Tracey Flye's solid cast, including highlights such as Toner's "Fever," McDonald's "Great Balls of Fire" and Gale's "Ghost Riders."

Beyond the music, Murphy really captures the chip on Carl's shoulder, Gale has a stoic energy reminiscent of the real Cash, Guy-McGrath crafts one of the more colourfully likeable bosses since Stephen Root's Jimmy James, and a superb McDonald steals scene after scene as loose cannon Lewis — all mugging, mischief and manic energy throughout, like some loquacious latter-day Harpo Marx.  

Clocking in well under two hours, it's a fast-moving, hard-rocking, good-natured blur of a musical — more concert than drama, but packing enough of the latter to give the material emotional resonance, especially in its nods to the oft-troubled futures facing 1956's young icons-in-the-making. Built as it is around a jam session, it may not be the meatiest play in town — but it is a mighty tasty jam sandwich.

—Select dates at Confederation Centre of the Arts. Tickets/info: confederationcentre.com.

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